The day was June 3rd, 1987, and the place was the Maharajpur Air Force Station near Gwalior. Home to the two elite Mirage 2000 Squadrons of the Indian Air Force, Maharajpur was one of the key airbases of Central Air Command. The time was 0530 hours. Daylight has not yet broken out, when Wg Cdr Ajit Bhavnani received received an important message. Bhavnani was the Commanding officer of the No.7 Squadron ‘The Battle Axes’. He was the first CO of the Squadron after it had inducted the state of the art Mirage 2000H fly by wire fighters and was himself trained in France before the induction. He had commanded the Squadron for over three years and was preparing for his move to Air HQ after his tenure was to end on June 22nd. However fate seemed to have destined that he would fly just one more important mission for the country. The message he received was a directive to immediately move some of his aircraft to the south of the country. The destination was the HAL Airport in Bangalore. A giant Illyushin 76 was allocated to him to move supporting personnel and equipment to Bangalore airport.
At 1130 Hrs, Bhavnani took off in his Mirage 2000, followed by five of his most experienced pilots which included S/L ‘Joe’ Bakshi, S/L NA ‘Pots’ Moitra , JS ‘Panne’ Panesar and Keshav Sidhu. After the one and a half hour flight, the Mirages approached Bangalore airport but were directed to land at Yelahanka airfield to the north of Bangalore. The Pilots had no idea as to what their mission was. Only towards the night at around 2100 hours did the pilots get their briefing. They were to fly as escorts to a group of An-32 Transport aircraft that would be dropping relief supplies over Northern Sri Lanka.
Far away in the north of the country was the Paratroopers Training School (PTS) at Agra. Normally the PTS main task was to provide Parachute training to Indian Army soldiers of the Para regiment. Their task was to help out in daily paradrops as well as train Para Jump masters and Skydivers. Just as the Battle Axes received the surprise orders to fly south, the PTS got the surprise orders to prepare for the task of dropping supplies over Jaffna. The ground crew were working hard in loading five An-32 aircraft with ‘relief’ supplies, Dried rations and vegetables packed in cartons and canvas bags rigged with Parachutes. Overseeing the loading operation was none other than the Vice Chief of Air Staff , Air Marshal S Raghavendran himself. The An-32s would be the first Indian aircraft that would be transgressing the airspace of another nation for the first time since the 1971 War. The mission to drop supplies over Northern Sri Lanka in the Jaffna Peninsula was named ‘Operation Poomalai’ (Garland).
The genesis of the story had started several years earlier in Sri Lanka, when the Sinhalese government put restrictive measures on the political freedom and rights of the Indian Tamil minorities. Opposition to the official repressive measures took a violent turn with the rise of tamil militancy and soon a number of militant groups like the LTTE , PLOT, EPRLF, TELO etc were operating in the Jaffna Peninsula against the Sri Lankan armed forces. Years of insurgency and fighting between the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and the Militant groups were interspersed with infighting among the Tamil groups themselves. This was followed by an allout offensive by the Sri Lankan Army in the summer of 1987. The offensive was moderately successful. The SL Army enforced a blockade of Jaffna that not only cut off the basic supplies to the entire civilian population, but also had put the major tamil militant group, the LTTE on the back foot. As the Sri Lankan Army started making gains in the Jaffna peninsula, concerns were raised in India on the future of the Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka. Even though it was the internal affair of Sri Lanka, the events in Jaffna raised considerable emotions and tensions in the neighboring Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where the tamils were seen as brothers suffering under the Sri Lankan govt policies. Whatever may be the legalities of the issue, the Indian Government of that time felt that it could not stand by while the Tamil minority representative groups were locked in what seemed as their last battle for survival.
In late May, the Indian government informed Sri Lanka that it was sending a convoy of relief supplies to the Jaffna peninsula by a ship convoy for ‘humanitarian reasons’. A flotilla of Indian boats carrying more than 1000 tonnes of supplies were turned back by the Sri Lankan Navy as they approached the territorial waters of Sri Lanka. The sending back of the Flotilla was seen as a great victory by the general populace of the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, and it was greeted with Jubilation and ‘Victory’ celebrations. It was quite clear that the Indian government was not going to take this living down. Plans were afoot for another drastic measure. It called for an aerial supply drop.
Back at Agra, the ground crew were helped by army personnel in loading the supplies onto the aircraft. The Aircraft were to fly to Bangalore after daylight and carry out the supply drop under the escort of Mirage 2000s. Around 0800 hours, the An-32s of the PTS took off for Bangalore flown by supporting aircrew. The actual aircrews who would be participating in the airdrop were already flown to Bangalore the previous night so that they could catch up with some rest. Gp Capt BK Sunder, the CO of PTS was to lead the An-32s over Sri Lanka. The final briefing was conducted by Air Vice Marshal Denzil Keelor, the ACAS (Ops) who had come down from Air HQ to Bangalore.
At 1500 Hours, the Sri Lankan Ambassador in New Delhi was called to the Ministry of External Affairs office. There he was conveyed the message by Mr. Natwar Singh that Indian Air Force An-32s would be taking off at 1600 Hours from somewhere in India and would be dropping supplies over Jaffna. The ambassador was told that the aircraft were expected to complete their mission unhindered and any opposition by the Sri Lankan Air Force ‘would be met by force’ by the escorting Mirage 2000s. The warning was unnecessary – The Sri Lankan Air Force hardly constituted a ‘threat’ to the IAF. It had a handful of Turbo prop Siai-Marchetti SF260 and Argentinean FMA Pucara Twin Turboprop counter insurgency aircraft. They would be no match for the digital deltas in a fight. The only opposition if any, would be that of ground fire from the Sri Lankan troops.
About the same time, the aircrew at Bangalore were making their final checks on the An-32s. There were a large number of domestic and International journalists who were at the airport covering the mission. It was decided let them fly in the An-32s to cover the flight. A group of 35 were finally chosen and all of them embarked the powered up An-32s in teams of seven each. At 15.55 hours, the first An-32 took to the air piloted by Gp Capt Sunder and Flt Lt SR Swarup as the co-pilot. It would be a round trip of 900 km awaited them to Jaffna and back.
Designated as ‘Eagle-Mission-4’, the An-32s formated and climbed upto 12000 feet altitude. As they crossed the Coramandal coast at around 1645, they were met by four Mirage 2000s led by Bhavnani who had taken off about the same time as the An-32s. The Mirages were carrying three drop tanks and two Matra Magic II Air to Air Missiles, just in case the Sri Lankan Air Force made an appearance. As it turned out later, they were not needed.
|Operation Poolmalai Wg Cdr Ajit Bhavnani escorts two of the An-32s from PTS involved in the relief supply drops over Sri Lanka known as ‘Operation Poolmalai’.|
As the transport aircraft were crossing the Palk straits — the stretch of water separating the Sri Lankan coast from the Indian coast, the Mirages maintained station about a 1000 feet higher than the An-32s. They were constantly making inward turns keeping the An-32s in sight all the time. A fifth Mirage was flying around the Indian coast acting as the radio relay. Two An-32s were also flying standby and acting as relay over Tamil Nadu – keeping the main supply dropping force in radio contact with the brass sitting in Bangalore.
The mission leader Gp Capt Sunder attempted radio contact with Colombo ATC at 1647. Inspite of repeated calls, nothing apart from static was heard. Sunder repeated the call over the Civilian air traffic radio channel and still no response was heard. It was clear that the Colombo ATC were listening in but were not responding, for Madras ATC was able to clearly pick out the radio calls over the civil channel. Sunder then continued calling on the channel, finally mentioning that Eagle Mission 4 was headed towards Jaffna on a mercy mission.
|EAGLE MISSION-4 : Antonov-32 transports of PTS taxiing for take off from Bangalore for the supply drop (Left) and the parachutes drifting down onto the Jaffna Peninsula (Right). Pictures Courtesy: INDIA TODAY|
By 1650 hours, the aircraft have approached the Jaffna peninsula. The An-32s slowed down and descended to just 1500 feet AGL. Jaffna town was in sight around 1700 hours. The rear Cargo doors were slid open and with the command given, the supplies slid down the cargo hold out of the aircraft. The White Parachutes ballooning as soon as the boxes left the aircraft. The supplies drifted down to the drop zone approx. 7km from Jaffna. Their mission completed the transport aircraft regained altitude and made a 180 degree turn. Perhaps in an unintended slight to the Sri Lankan Air Force, the formation overflew Palaly airbase in the north of Jaffna Peninsula, in full sight of those on the ground. There was no opposition to the aircraft at all. Nor did the aircrew observe any aircraft on the ground either. The aircraft continued in westerly direction for sometime before turning North.
It was 1813 hours by the time the lead aircraft touched down in Bangalore . Once on the ground, there was much cheering and celebration for both the transport and fighter pilots. It was a job well done . AVM Keelor took the Battle Axes pilots for dinner. The Prime Ministers Office sent its congratulations to the Aircrew and units involved in the whole operation.
The aftermath of the supply drop bought forth heavy recrimination and diplomatic flurry of allegations and counter-allegations. Sri Lanka accused India of “blatant violation of sovereignty”. India insisted that it was acting only on humanitarian grounds. The United States expressed ‘regret’ but refused to further comment on the incident.
The supplies dropped amounted to not more than 23 tonnes and was not substantial at all. But it sent a message to the Sri Lankans that India would not be a bystander to the ongoing civil war. If it was against the interests of the ethnic Tamil minorities, then it would be against Indian interests as well as there would be corresponding repercussions in its own indigenous tamil population. The supply drop was intended to be a message – and it succeeded in driving home that point to the Sri Lankan government. The siege of Jaffna was lifted – and cease-fire declared.
° “Journey to Jaffna”, India Today Magazine June 30, 1987.
° The Battle Axes – No.7 Squadron Indian Air Force 1942-1992, Pushpindar Singh
° Paratroopers Training School – Official Indian Air Force Website.
° The Hindu Newspaper edition dated June 5th 1987